Trinitarian evangelism

This post excerpts a lecture from Grace Communion Seminary faculty member Randy Bloom, given in his Church Planting and Development course. It addresses an approach to evangelism grounded in and shaped by incarnational Trinitarian theology. 

Jesus teaching (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

To evangelize is to proclaim the gospel

In the New Testament, to evangelize (euaggeliz├│ in Greek) means to announce the gospel (euangelion in Greek). Evangelism is about proclaiming the good news that in and through Jesus Christ, the Father has reconciled all people to himself, thus including all people in his love and life. The gospel tells us that no one is predetermined to eternal alienation from God because Jesus, through his representative-substitutionary human life, has offered to the Father every perfect, obedient human response, thus restoring right relationship between God and all humanity. The message of the gospel then invites people to respond to this good news (Acts 2:38) with repentance (change of mind) and faith (trust in Jesus). The Holy Spirit facilitates this response by leading people to an awareness of their sin. He then leads those who choose to follow Jesus to a transformed life (John 16:8; Rom. 2:4).

When people become aware of sin in their life, they often live with burdens of guilt. They often feel unloved and unaccepted. The message of the gospel assures them that God loves them unconditionally; that in Christ they are forgiven and reconciled to God; and that they may participate in God's love and life now and forever as God’s beloved children. Jesus’ approach to helping people who live with guilt and alienation is to graciously minister to them and to embrace them with the Father’s love (Matt. 9:35-36; 11:28; 12:17-20; John 3:17). His words and actions of judgment are reserved only for those who reject him and his grace.

This incarnational Trinitarian understanding of the gospel asserts the complete and sufficient work of Jesus Christ on behalf of all humanity. It recognizes that as the second Adam, Jesus’ righteousness more than overwhelms the sin of the first Adam (Rom. 5:18-19). By God’s love and grace, humanity was predestined to be included in Jesus’ relationship with the Father (Eph. 1:4-10). While this view of the gospel addresses sin, it does not remain focused on sin. Instead, it focuses on Jesus and the relationship he restores between God and people – a relationship made possible by God’s own action in Christ, by the Spirit, on behalf of all humanity.

At its heart, the gospel is not about living a moral life or assenting to religious dogma. The gospel is about a dynamic relationship of love with the Father, Son and Spirit. This relationship is a gift that cannot be earned by human effort or belief. This relationship (called salvation) is an objective reality, accomplished by God’s grace alone, for all humanity. It then becomes subjective reality, when personally acknowledged and believed (John 20:27-31; Acts 2:38-39; 16:31; Rom. 10:9).

This view of the gospel is not universalism. It does not assert that all people will believe and so receive the free gift of salvation that is theirs in and through Jesus Christ. God will not force his gift on anyone. Scripture indicates that, ultimately, some may not believe and accept the wonderful gift of life and fellowship with God that is their in Christ (Matt. 25:41-46; John 5:28-29; Rev. 20:11-15). Belief cannot be guaranteed, for faith and unbelief always entail choice. Turning away from Jesus and rejecting his free gift reflects the inexplicable, irrational, and unintelligible nature of evil.

Why and how do we evangelize?

Evangelism is an obedient response to the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), motivated by love for God and for people (Matt. 22:37; 2 Cor. 5:14). Through evangelism, we participate with Jesus, by the Spirit, in the Father's mission for the sake of the world. Rather than a formulaic program, evangelism is a relationally-oriented process that flows from the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Evangelism is a way of life that reflects the love of the Trinity. The church that evangelizes participates in the life and work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Thomas F. Torrance describes two ways of evangelizing---one that is evangelical and one that is unevangelical. The unevangelical way says: “This is what Jesus Christ has done for you, but you will not be saved unless you make your own personal decision for Christ as your Savior. This is not a gospel of unconditional grace. It is a version of the gospel that “belies the essential nature and content of the Gospel as it is in Jesus.” [1] The evangelical way of evangelizing says: “God so loves you that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ. Jesus died for you and made you his own apart from and before you ever believed him. In doing so he has bound you to himself and he will never let you go. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Renounce yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus”[2]

The evangelical way of evangelizing recognizes that salvation is an objective reality by God’s grace alone. What is objectively true for all then becomes personally (subjectively) true for individuals when they believe in (have faith in) who Jesus is and what he has done, thus personally accepting and living into that which is already theirs in Christ. One’s trust is not in one’s own faith, but in Jesus and his faithfulness (Gal. 2:20, KJV). A “decision to accept Jesus” is not what saves a person. Only Jesus saves. Belief enables a person to accept and enjoy the salvation that Jesus already has secured for them.

Guiding principles for evangelism

Though evangelism is not merely a program, there are evangelism programs that are useful tools for organizing a church's evangelistic efforts. It is important to note,. however, that when programs are used, they should be used in ways that fit within the framework of incarnational Trinitarian theology---a framework that includes the following guiding principles:

1. Importance of being intentional
The absence of a strategic plan for reaching unchurched people with the gospel of Jesus will virtually ensure failure.[3] Therefore, church leaders should develop an effective process for intentionally evangelizing unchurched people within their identified focus group or community. The process used should always be grace-based, relational and culturally sensitive. A church that is not evangelizing risks becoming ingrown and self-centered. Some form of evangelism, therefore, should remain a priority for churches at all stages of their development. 

2. Importance of viewing evangelism as a process
Evangelism is progressive. It is not a one-time event. It entails a process by which people are introduced to Jesus, develop a relationship with him, and grow in Christian maturity. The process is one that takes time, effort, and patience as God works in the lives of people (1 Cor. 3:5-9). One reason evangelism takes time and patience is that the church suffers from a lack of credibility and relevance in North American society. George Gallup, Jr. and Timothy Jones state that Christians need to build bridges over relational chasms that have been created between the church and unchurched people. Evangelism entails sacrifice and sensitivity in order to develop relationships of trust that create opportunities to share the gospel with unbelievers.

The gospel is about the relationship between people and God - a relationship that has been broken, restored, and healed. Re-building this relationship takes time. It takes many small steps in the healing process that lead to the big step of entering into a wholehearted relationship with God. People need to be led to God gradually.

3. Importance of understanding evangelism as incarnational living
The church was not established as an attractional entity. Rather, it is incarnational in nature. Through the Spirit, the church exists in real union with Christ. The church, as the body of Christ, (1 Cor. 12:13; 27; Eph. 4:15-16), is an incarnation (but not the incarnation) of Jesus in the world today. As Jesus emptied himself of his divine prerogatives to become human (Phil. 2:5-8), the church needs to forsake certain aspects of its existence, i.e., its cultural preferences and certain non-essentials, in order to draw close to those of other cultures.[4]

Sjogren, Ping, and Pollock wrote, “True evangelism is not merely proclaiming a message of good news; it is becoming a living representative of God’s heart toward people.”[5] As the church lives incarnationally among people it takes on the identity and values of others in order to share the life of Christ. Pieter de Jong explains, “Evangelism means learning how to live the life of discipleship and obedience in such a manner that others catch the spirit of gratitude in our lives and join in our responses to God’s decision for us in Jesus Christ our Lord.”[6]

Incarnational evangelism entails getting to know people, their needs, and their spiritual condition. It takes time to break down barriers and build trusting relationships that will enable people to open their hearts to God’s love. The church should make every effort to present the gospel in ways that do not cause offence or place needless obstacles before people that make it difficult for them to respond.

4. Importance of contextualizing evangelism
People need to understand the gospel in order to respond to it (Rom. 10:17). When developing plans for evangelizing a particular group of people, church leaders should consider the cultural context for the group they are trying to reach and then develop ways to present the gospel that are culturally relevant and that make the gospel clear to people. This requires communicating the gospel in terms people can understand. It also means communicating the gospel in liturgical forms that people can identify with.

5. Importance of viewing evangelism as sacrificial service
Jesus came to humanity as a suffering servant. Participating in his ongoing incarnation to the world entails a lifestyle of service (Matt. 20:26-28; John 10:11; Phil. 2:5-8) that demonstrates God’s love by offering to do humble acts of service in Christ’s name with no strings attached. Serving in the name of Jesus requires a willingness to sacrifice in order to meet the various needs of people (John 15:12-13; Rom. 12:1).

6. Importance of letting God be God
As the church fulfills its mission to preach the gospel and make disciples, it must never forget that it is God who saves. It is God’s prerogative to produce results from the church’s evangelistic efforts (1 Cor. 3:6). If the church believes that its responsibility is to produce believers, it will run the risk of developing approaches to evangelism that become programmatic and manipulative. The church should always remember that the main objective of evangelism is to point people to the living Christ and urge them to trust him.

Conclusion

As Christians, we know that God is at work in the world. Therefore, we do not need to rush the evangelistic process. God is sovereign and loves all people. The free gift of God’s grace, love, and eternal life are available to all and God does not desire that any perish (John 12:32; 1 Tim. 2:3-6; 2 Pet. 3:9). The Holy Spirit is the final agent in the communication of the gospel, and he is at work in both the listeners as well as the speakers in the process of communicating the gospel, regardless of cultural forms. Church leaders need to trust the sovereign Spirit to reach people in his way and in his time with the gospel and then help members of the church walk in step with the Spirit as he does his amazing evangelistic work in the world. 

Note: for another post on a Trinitarian approach to evangelism, click here.


[1] T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 93.
[2] T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.
[3] In this context, “failure” is related to not connecting relationally with non-Christians, not sharing the gospel with them, not helping them respond in faith to Jesus and not helping them become maturing disciples. If evangelistic efforts are not put forth (in appropriate and relevant ways), the identity and purpose (being/love and doing/mission) of the church is not being lived out – the church is not participating in Jesus’ mission. As a result, a church plant will not develop and grow and an established church will likely continue to function as it always has and not experience numerical growth.  
[4] Lingenfelter and Mayers note that “Becoming incarnate in another culture does not demand or imply a loss of moral integrity.” Rather, it entails suspending one’s commitment to one’s indigenous culture, entering into another culture, and transforming the new culture from within. This does not require a loss of prior identity or culture. (Ministering Cross-Culturally, 120-121.)
[5] Sjogren, Ping and Pollack, Irresistible Evangelism, 58.
[6] Pieter de Jong, Evangelism and Contemporary Theology, 112.